Does Size Matter?
First Some History
Way back when there were a lot of hockey players quite a bit shorter than six feet tall. Back then there were only six teams and there wasn’t much money to made for hockey players in the NHL. Most players played for the love of the game and most had other jobs in the off-season.
In 1966 the NHL announced expansion and in the 1967-68 season there was a total 12 teams playing in the NHL.
A big change came with the formation of the WHA (The World Hockey Association) a rival league to the NHL, which fielded 12 teams in 1972. The League struggled and was not considered much of a threat, until Bobby Hull; arguably the NHL’s top forward at the time, jumped to the new league. Hull was not thought to be seriously considering signing with the WHA and when he told reporters that he would only move to the WHA “for a million dollars”, it was both intended by Hull and taken by his audience to be a joke since a million dollars at that time was considered to be a ridiculous amount of money for a hockey player. Nevertheless, the Winnipeg Jets offered Hull a five-year, one million dollar contract with a one million dollar signing bonus. Hull’s move to the WHA attracted other first line NHL players and started a wage war between the rival leagues for top talent.
The net result was that hockey was now a very big and costly business and winning became ever more important. Making the play-offs and going deep or winning it all meant thousands of extra dollars to a team.
And Thus Came The Search For Size
The saying became; “A good big hockey player will always be better than a good little hockey player”.
I remember going to Toronto Maple Leaf games in the mid to late 1970’s and watching the Leafs play the Flyers in the Stanley Cup play-offs. At that time the Fliers were known as the “Broad Street Bullies” and the games were a virtual war and blood bath.
This was a time when size and toughness were the primary factors that were considered when selecting a hockey player. This was because of the rules at that time and the way the game was played under those rules.
The center red line was in play for off side passes which slowed down the advancement of a line rush. More important though were the rules on obstruction and fighting. When it came to obstruction and interference, we used to joke that a player could wrap his stick around the waist of an opposing player and “water ski” behind him by being dragged along the ice and not get a penalty. Slashing and hacking at a player was just a part of the game. When it came to intimidation and fighting, it was considered as important as any other asset in your arsenal for success.
Size and toughness became paramount to success.
What Happens At The Pro Level Filters Down To The Minor Hockey Level
The play of the game at the minor league levels tends to take it’s lead from the play of the game at the NHL and the play of the game quickly filters down to hockey at the very young age groups.
I used to hear this phrase from minor league hockey coaches: “I can teach a player all kinds of things, but I can’t teach size”.
I know of coaches in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (the biggest minor hockey league in the world) that went out and recruited the biggest players they could find as the easiest pathway to coaching success.
I personally know of quite a number of players who were six foot two or three at the age of 16 that were given shots at the OHL and these players couldn’t tie the skates of much smaller skilled players who never got a look. This was happening through the 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s.
They used to say: “A good big hockey player will always be better than a good little hockey player”.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.
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